BMCR 2003.07.10

The Ship of State: Statecraft and Politics from Ancient Greece to Democratic America

, The ship of state : statecraft and politics from ancient Greece to democratic America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (243 pages). ISBN 9780300128055. $35.00.

From Schiller through Nietzsche and Foucault, philosophical critics of modernity have argued that Greek literary and philosophical texts can supply crucial aid in our efforts to develop new ways of thinking and acting that are in tension with the most powerful “normalizing” (in Foucault’s sense) opinions and categories of our age. For the Nietzscheans, what is at stake in reading classics is not scholarship narrowly understood but liberation. While free of all Nietzschean bombast and self-aggrandizing zeal, Norma Thompson’s sometimes quirky and always engaging Ship of State lies within this tradition, but Thompson takes it in a decidedly non-Nietzschean direction by arguing that the specific message we can recover from these texts is an Aristotelian one: avoid construing the world and acting in it as if we were faced with a heroic choices between incompatible extremes; seek balance instead. Speaking along the same lines of the difference between Aristotelian and modern ethical rationalism, John McDowell says that we moderns tend to assume there must be a dichotomy between

reason and the more evidently “natural” aspects of character. I think [this] leads commentators to miss a possibility of profiting from Greek ethical reflection: a possibility of appreciating, as best we can from our different vantage point, what it might have been like to think about character, reason, and conduct in an intellectual climate that was not shaped by the pressure towards such dualisms. Our intellectual climate is irreversibly so shaped, but the strands in Greek ethics I consider, read as I urge, help to bring out that it is possible, even for us, to resist that pressure.1

What we can recover from ancient philosophy, according to McDowell, is help in freeing ourselves from powerful yet hard-to-see dichotomizing tendencies in modern Western culture for the sake of developing a balancing approach to conflicting goods and principles. The same thought — that the reason to study classical texts today is practical, in Aristotle’s sense of the word, rather than only scholarly — is expressed in a passage from Simone Weil that forms the epigraph to Norma Thompson’s second book.2

If we know in what way society is unbalanced, we must do what we can to add weight to the lighter scale . . . we must have formed a conception of equilibrium and be ever ready to change sides like justice, ‘that fugitive from the camp of the conquerors.’

Thompson’s book, short (172 pages plus notes) and readable, yet thick with fresh ideas and non-trivial insights, is such an effort at recovery and resistance to simplifying dichotomies. In her concluding chapter, she sums up the book’s project: excavating some generally overlooked implications of several old (and not so old) texts in order to show that, in addition to the familiar questions of justice and equality, the tradition of political philosophy seems also always to address a natural human tendency to lopsidedness, and to propose strategies for combating it. In a concluding chapter, Thompson summarizes her project thus:

Political principles, qualities, and characteristics tend to cluster around one of two poles. For simplicity’s sake, these can be thought of as a balancing of masculine and feminine principles, but gender is irrelevant to a person’s political inclination, allegiance, or leadership on either side. When a society leans heavily to one side, to the neglect of the other, it does indeed become “lopsided.” Within this context, the works studied in this book provide the occasion for taking a new or renewed angle of vision on four topics: the depth of our present political discourse, the place of time and history in political life today, a more comprehensive approach to contemporary statecraft, and assessing the comparative successes of democracies and their party systems in the light of a masculine-feminine paradigm. (159)

Thompson begins her introductory chapter by telling us that “the central stimulus for this book initially came from Tocqueville’s study of America” (1). According to Tocqueville, democracy needs to maintain a balance between binaries — aristocracy and democracy, the spirit of freedom and the spirit of religion, masculine and feminine, even essentialism and constructivism — but the simplifying dynamic of modern democratic political culture leads us to embrace one element of each dichotomy at the expense of the other. Like Tocqueville, Thompson feels we need to accept and balance both elements of these dichotomies (and others, such as nature-culture and private-public) but thinks we democrats are inclined to resist this and so are all too likely to understand ourselves and the world around us in a distorted and impoverished way. Her turn to the classics is motivated by the desire to revive a taste for such ambiguity by encouraging her readers to “think through the enduring issues of political philosophy” (p. 8) as those issues emerge in a variety of narratives even more than in systematic theorizing. Her introduction adds an important premise to Tocqueville’s critique of democracy. For Thompson, this too often unrecognized need to balance antitheses rather than to erase or transcend them extends further than Tocqueville suspected and belongs not only to the new democracy emerging in America in the nineteenth century but to all societies organized around some sort of polis. For Thompson, the crucial aspect of the polis and its two successors, the individual rights protecting state that emerged in the revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the modern Tocquevillian and American democracy, is an “affinity for productive tension” (12). But this element is hidden, and it is the particular work of a tradition of political philosophy or theory, defined by a common task rather than by shared stylistic conventions, to bring this crucial element to light. According to Thompson, the problem has been addressed by writers since Homer, and we now can learn from these literary narratives from the past: “the distinctive correctives of one age can be profitably reconsidered in another” (p. 5). Tocqueville suggests that we now live in “dark times,” in which the past can shed but little light upon the future.3 Thompson disagrees, and her prescription for treating the democratic disorder Tocqueville identifies turns out to be explicitly anti-Tocquevillian. Thompson’s project is in this short book is thus quite bold: How have authors in the tradition she constructs, stretching from the Odyssey through Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, responded to this hidden but vital political need to maintain a balance, to avoid one or another version of meretricious lopsidedness? The bulk of the book consists of ten short interpretive studies aimed at bringing to our attention attempts to respond to this problem: Homer’s Odyssey, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, Aristotle’s Politics, Plato’s Phaedrus and Republic, Machiavelli’s treatment of the rape of Lucretia in his Discourses on Livy and Mandragola; Edmund Burke’s depiction of Marie Antoinette in Reflections on the Revolution in France, Mary Shelley’s creature/monster in Frankenstein, Rousseau’s tutor in Emile and in Emile and Sophie, Tocqueville’s Democracy, and Stein’s Autobiography.

There is an even deeper claim implicit in the book, a claim about the nature of political philosophy. Thompson reads all of the authors in the tradition she names political philosophy as story-tellers, thus asserting that at its best political philosophy consists of stories that open new possibilities for action and life rather than arguments that demonstrate the truth of conclusions expressed in propositional form. The primary measure of the texts thus becomes the extent to which they open practical possibilities rather than their logical coherence. Coherence matters, but not as much as discursive fertility.

A quick overview of her particular interpretations gives an idea of the book’s range and direction. The first three chapters consider the origin, corruption, and possible rebirth of the Greek polis as represented by the four Greek authors. Thompson’s argument is that Homer, Thucydides, and the two philosophers are united in their worry over the destructive inclination to dichotomize aspects of life that are opposed yet potentially complementary. I found her thoughts on Thucydides especially useful, particularly her reflections on possible Thucydidean ironies. The most developed discussion is of Plato, in which she examines aspects of two dialogues: the tension between writing and speaking in the Phaedrus, and the relationship between the figure of Plato’s Socrates on the one hand and of this fictive Socrates’s Kallipolis on the other in the Republic (for her, Plato shows us that his Socrates succeeds in a way Socrates’s Kallipolis does not). A sample of Thompson’s nuanced weaving of the gender factor into her commentary is her concluding statement about the Phaedrus. Arguing that the dialogue is not simply a one-sided critique of writing and praise of orality, she says that “it would be more accurate to claim that the Phaedrus is about the difficulty of establishing a workable foundation that avoids the twin dangers of the loss of memory associated with a vaguely feminine orality and the rigidity of memory associated with a vaguely masculine literacy” (60).

The next two chapters concern texts spanning the early 1500’s to the early 1800’s. Thompson’s point of departure here is her claim that Machiavelli, Burke, Shelley, and Rousseau have something in common which sets them apart from her Greek opponents of imbalance. This is a “facility in the art of antitheses,” in the “dramatization of extremes”. Machiavelli sets the tone here, in a way that sheds challenging light on the rhetoric and hence the meaning of the other three writers. But Thompson’s point here is not to praise the ancients over the moderns nor to argue for an impossible return to antiquity in modern letters. Instead, her reading of the modern texts is framed by the idea that “from Machiavelli onward, there are occasions of success which establish that the antithetical strategy of modern rhetoric is a perfectly good alternative to the equilibrium of the Greeks” (76). The modern style of blocking the triumph of dichotomy is to subvert textual closure rather than to establish a point of equilibrium. Thompson’s best example of this claim is her lively discussion of Rousseau’s apparent ambivalence toward the tutor in Emile and its little known sequel.

The last two chapters on particular texts focus on responses to the endemic problems of the American regime and provide a surprising finish to Thompson’s readings. Her authors here are Tocqueville and Gertrude Stein, and, in spite of her acknowledged debt to Tocqueville, Thompson argues vigorously and at length that Stein succeeds where Tocqueville fails, in finding a rhetoric to dislodge us from our dichotomizing inclinations. According to Thompson, Tocqueville is overpowered by the modern style of antithesis, repeatedly slipping into that mode even as he warns against it; Stein is not. I don’t know Stein and so cannot comment on Thompson’s reading here, but as an admirer of Tocqueville I find her criticism of the French visitor hard to rebut and well worth bearing in mind.

As these brief summaries suggest, The Ship of State is as much concerned with tone and rhetorical stance as with doctrinal content. Like James Boyd White,4 Thompson treats her texts, no matter what their apparent genre, as if they were attempts at forming communities of shared belief, and thus as potentially world-constructing agents. As with White’s, Thompson’s essays do not aim at the last word concerning the texts they engage, and they can be read with profit by readers at several levels of sophistication, from those studying the texts for the first time to specialist scholars. The aim of The Ship of State is not to explicate theories of statecraft, but to exemplify and defend a strategy of reading. Thompson’s goal is to convince us that these texts tell stories that open new possibilities for action and life, not to show that they do or do not prove the truth of propositional conclusions. The book’s success in achieving this goal will best be measured in practice by the extent to which it lends energy to new readings of texts like those it discusses. Its title is thus a little misleading: the subject of the book is not statecraft, at least not directly, but liberal education.


1. Mind, Value, & Reality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 1998), p. viii.

2. The first was Herodotus and the Origins of the Political Community: Arion’s Leap (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

3. In the final chapter of Democracy in America, Tocqueville says this: “I go back century by century to the furthest removed antiquity; I perceive nothing that resembles what is before my eyes. With the past no longer shedding light on the future, the mind advances in darkness”. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 673.

4. See especially When Words Lose Their Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) and Acts of Hope: Creating Authority in Literature, Law, and Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). Like White, Thompson brings to her reading of modern texts a sensibility shaped by close and well-informed reading of many Greek ones.